England’s victory over Sri Lanka in the second Test here was not so much about levelling the series as levelling old scores. When Craig White struck the winning run, half an hour after lunch, to see his side home by three wickets the hand-shaking that followed was done largely for show. The reality is a seething enmity which if not doused could erupt again in Colombo when the third Test begins in three days’ time.
The hostility, barely disguised on the pitch, apparently flared up again on Saturday evening when the inquiry being held into the on-field spat between Michael Atherton and the wicket-keeper Kumar Sangakkara turned into a slanging match between the representatives of both sides.If the details are not known, except that the managers, coaches and captains of each side were also present alongside the match referee, Hanumant Singh, the fact that someone like Atherton is still prepared to fight his corner in the headmaster’s study means that relations between the sides must have sunk to an all time low. Indeed, such a state of affairs was more or less confirmed when invitations to a party being held to celebrate Muttiah Muralitharan’s 300th Test wicket were ripped up and thrown in the bin.According to Atherton and Alec Stewart, both with 107 Tests to their names, the current series is the worst and most ill-tempered they have ever played in. The bad feeling between the sides has a history that goes back to a one-dayer in Adelaide two winters ago.It was a match that England lost amidst much provocation, after Arjuna Ranatunga led his team from the pitch after Muralitharan had been no-balled for throwing. In this series the combustible mix has been inflamed by the appalling decision-making of the umpires. At the last count more than 23 wrong calls have been made over the two Tests, 13 of them by B C Cooray in Kandy.With that many mistakes any victory is bound too feel slightly pyrrhic.
As it was England who prevailed, the triumph will have brought greater satisfaction than against South Africa at Centurion last winter, where a double forfeit and the Hansie Cronje affair subsequently tainted the achievement. But although the cricket was fascinating and tense, it was too error-strewn to rank alongside the recent wins over West Indies or Pakistan.”As captain, there are certain things that went on in this game that were disappointing,” said Nasser Hussain afterwards. “But if you take that to one side, and have it as a game of cricket played on a good pitch against a very competitive side, it gave us great satisfaction and there was no bad taste left in the mouth.”Like most of the players, Hussain believes it has been the poor umpiring that has caused most of the ill-will. “I’m not a psychologist, but there are always games like Tottenham v Arsenal that cause a bit more needle. These two sides are like that, though obviously the decision-making has been the problem in the last two Tests. I’ll be happy to have a word about it with Sanath [Jayasuriya] but only if Duncan [Fletcher] and I think it will do any good.”On a pitch that offered something to everyone over the duration, but increasing turned for the spinners, the cricket was hard and combative and England, 91 for 4, and needing 70 runs to win when play began, were only just favourites.The loss of Stewart in the seventh over of the morning, lbw to Chaminda Vaas, evened things up though not for umpire Cooray.
Although television showed the decision to be wrong it was not a howler as some have been, with the ball pitching half an inch outside the leg-stump.With an excruciating 11-ball duck in the first innings, Graeme Hick found himself in familiar territory playing for his career. In Karachi he won himself a reprieve with a sensible 40, but his efforts this time were less impressive. Dropped when two by Sangakkara off an inside-edge, Hick punched one boundary through extra cover off Muralitharan before being bowled attempting to do the same to a ball from Jayasuriya that turned out of the rough.It was not a blameworthy dismissal but it should spell a final farewell for Hick, at least at Test level. And yet, with Hussain tweaking his left groin, he could get another reprieve.”It’s going to be an important Test, so I’m probably going to have to grin and bear it and play,” said Hussain afterwards.